The Color of Money: VCs, Angels and Green Investing

ExclusiveLast month, we began a series of articles looking at progressive issues in the world of equity investment. Our first piece, VCs, Angels and Investing in Women: What Are They Not Thinking?, explored the female business community’s relationship with those groups that play such a major role in driving our economy and business values. What follows is the second article in the series. It focuses on entrepreneurial investment in clean tech and green business.

At the opening of what would become the legendarily (and to some, notoriously) “pro-business” 1980s, President Ronald Reagan took clear and immediate steps to show his commitment to supply-side capitalism. He weakened and busted unions, initiated an unprecedented deregulation movement, and changed tax law to favor corporate interests. He was the champion of “trickle down” economics and, depending whether one sees the man as heroic or demonic, his legacy casts a bright light or dark shadow on us to this day.

In the shadow department, Reagan took an extremely dim view of alternative energy and the budding green movement, in general. This was in part evidenced by his halving the Solar Institute’s budget from 1980 to 1982 and, in 1986, symbolically removing solar panels from the White House.

The panels were clearly a symbolic gesture in the first place. President Jimmy Carter had placed them on the Pennsylvania Avenue mansion in 1979 as a display of American ingenuity and to send a message to that we, as a nation, were committed to exploring environmentally friendly ways to wean ourselves off foreign oil (a national addiction that continues to grip us 30 years later and would, less than a year after the panels went up, play a key role in Carter losing the Presidency). At the installation ceremony, Carter said: “No one can ever embargo the sun or interrupt its delivery to us.”

What was Ronald Reagan saying to the entrepreneurial community when he ripped those solar panels from the roof of the White House – and, through his policies, the nascent alternative energy industry up by its delicate new roots? How did this figure into a free market proposition? Was it a really pro-business? Or simply pro-existing-business?

Better Late than Never

Thirteen years after Ronald Reagan took office, Nancy Floyd got into the green-energy investment business. It was 1993 and it was, as she puts it, “a lonely game.”

Floyd had the chops: In 1982, she founded NFC Energy Corporation, one of the country’s first wind development firms. There she put together more than $30 million in projects and three years later sold the company for a 25-fold return on the original investment. Then, in 1985, she helped found PacTel Spectrum Services which was sold to IBM in 1987.

Yet despite the financial gravitas of the messenger (and a few others like her), the question in the early 1990s remained: when it came to raising green funds, were investors ready to listen?

“At the time, the only market driver was the deregulation of utilities,” remembers Floyd. “There were really no other players or considerations. And though the political winds had changed [with the entrance of the Clinton Administration], our crisis memories are short. OPEC, gas lines, all of it had had been forgotten. Gas was cheap, consumers were apathetic, and the climate crisis was anything but mainstream. Right now, only 50 percent of people believe that [global warming] is real. You can imagine what it was like 20 years ago.”

But Floyd and her small community set out to educate investors as to the possibilities. It was a forward-thinking proposition, but some saw the opportunity (read: a looming crisis) and a discussion around clean tech and “doable” alternative energy began to take shape. This discussion was broad based, and included both environmentalist concerns as well as ROI to be realized by dealing with national and global energy challenges.

Slowly, things began to change, and as we entered the new millennium, says Floyd, forces subtle and less so had brought some hard realities to consumer (and thus investor) consciousness. From Al Gore to Osama bin Laden, climate and cultural realizations had exposed a powerful new marketplace. For investors, an opportunity for “doing well by doing good” had arrived.

“We were [by 2004] and continue to be at a true inflection point,” says Floyd. “Globally, the status quo is untenable. It’s not a spot crisis any more. Big issues have to be resolved and they represent [market] drivers that will play out over decades. It’s not a matter of politics or tree hugging. This is about national and consumer requirements, and business – not on an ideological level, but on a bottom line level.”

Indeed, green investing seems to have come of age. According to Cleantech Group, 13 percent of all venture capital dollars are now going green – making it the largest sector in VC. Comparing just the last quarter of 2010 to the first quarter of this year, investments in clean-tech deals were up 26 percent (54 percent over the same time period last year). Since January, green companies have raised $1.1 billion, and a accompanying surge in green technology jobs appears to be in the wings. Not bad for a down economy – if it wasn’t clear just a few years ago, it’s clear now: this once “progressive” investment arena has achieved lift-off.

For her part, Floyd is no longer a lone wolf. She is founder and Managing Director of Nth Power, a “nothing else but” green tech venture capital firm focused on “energy technology, materials and other related businesses.” The San Francisco-based group currently manages $420 million that’s invested in 58 companies, including “market leaders” in renewable energy (solar, wind, geothermal, etc.), energy efficiency, smart grid, clean transportation and green buildings.

And while her efforts clearly target the “doing good” part of the equation, “doing well” for her investors remains paramount. “Our investors are big pensions and corporations,” she points out. “’While we’re differentiated as clean tech, consciousness is a small issue. What they want from us is to look at teams, strategies and execution plans. What’s important is money. And it can be made in clean tech.”

The Game Board – Clean Tech and Double Bottom Line

To understand today’s robust, green equity-investment community, it helps to understand two primary investment angles – “clean tech” and “double bottom line.”

Floyd’s Nth Power is a VC firm dedicated to clean tech. “It” believes that “the way society values and uses energy is in the midst of a significant transformation will lead to the widespread adoption of energy technologies and the creation of new companies led by a new breed of energy entrepreneurs. With the growing consumer demand for reliable, digital quality power, questions regarding the viability (and price volatility) of coal, oil and other fossil fuels, and the growing threat of global climate change, the opportunity for technology innovation in the energy sector has never been greater.”

Quite a mission/vision/pitch. But the bottom line is that there are clean tech markets to be tapped and mastered. Aside from those market leaders mentioned earlier, these also include biofuel, conservation, recycling and waste reduction, sustainable agriculture and manufacturing, and much more.

The other camp, or investment approach, is the much-discussed double bottom line (or triple or quadruple or whatever the case may be). This view says that one should measure the pay off of investments in more than one way: hence the – at least – “double.” Cash return on equity remains the driver, of course. But another measurement might be, say, job creation, or literacy or poverty alleviation – or an environmentally positive impact. (We’ll further explore the broader benefits of double bottom line investing in an upcoming article in this series.)

A perfect example of such a VC firm is DBL Investors, which was created from the spin-off of the Bay Area Equity Fund I from JPMorgan in January 2008. The group’s double bottom line strategy is “to invest in companies with the potential do deliver top-tier venture capital returns while working with [its] companies to enable social, environmental and economic improvement in the regions in which they operate.”

One of the firm’s two Managing Partners is Nancy Pfund. Formerly a Managing Director at JP Morgan, her financial background and focus on wealth creation is matched by her commitment to outcomes such as eliminating poverty. She explains her firm’s relationship with green investing: “Our second bottom line is having a positive impact on the communities where our companies end up doing business. That can be a positive environmental impact, and that can be by creating jobs though clean tech. Many of our companies do many positive things, not just one.”

Her partner, Cynthia Ringo, is formerly a Managing Director of VantagePoint Venture Partners. “We play in the venture capital space, which is of course driven by innovation,” she says. “Any venture capitalist is looking for disruptive companies that will displace incumbents and generate wealth. We also happen to be looking at poverty alleviation – sort of giving a lifeline to people. Clean tech is fantastic at that.”

As it was for Floyd, 2004 was an important transition time for Pfund and Ringo’s double bottom line approach. “Our target was $75 million,” says Pfund. “It took us a few years to do it but we did close in 2004. We had lots and lots of investors, including banks, pension funds, foundations, etc. At that time, clean tech was not what it is today, so we didn’t focus our marketing on that, per se, but we did focus on a broader double bottom line. In the end, though, 60 percent of the fund went toward clean tech.”

Says Ringo: “Clean tech is perhaps the most obvious way to accomplish our mission, because we will not take a reduction in a financial return in order to accomplish a social goal, and this concept is well understood in this sector. The business factors related to clean tech are very strong.”

Raising their second fund in 2008 was even tougher, given the economic environment. “But we just had our final close,” says Pfund. “It was for about $140 million, so we almost doubled the size from the first time around. Part of that is because our focus is now on the Western United States and not just Northern California and the other part is out strong track record. But, still, 50 percent of this fund will be green focused.”

The reasons for success in clean tech investment are increasingly consumer driven, and they’re not just about climate change. “Where’s that consumer pull coming from?” asks Ringo. “Maybe it’s because people want to reduce the amount of money that they’re spending on their utilities or on transportation. Maybe they are concerned about the health impact of certain types of products. Looking back [prior to the changes of the early ‘00s], there was not a lot of consumer pull and those that were making demands were called tree-huggers and other derogatory names like that. It was a much smaller demographic than it is today. Now, if you speak to a panel of mothers who range in age from 25 to 45, how high do you think their concerns around issues of health for their family go? Very.”

Where Angels Come to Play

Whether the focus is in pure clean tech or double bottom line, angel investors are, of course, also in the green mix. By definition, however, these have traditionally been individual players in arena, gathering their own contacts and research to make smart decisions. But one group, Northwest Energy Angels, is taking a pooled intelligence approach to mining these rich opportunities.

The Seattle-based non-profit is a membership organization of private investors that only funds clean tech entrepreneurs. They believe that through such investment they can find “the intersection of our desire to make successful angel investments, our personal values and the world we want to leave our children.” The group is comprised of “seasoned angel investors and venture capitalists, as well as new angels learning by participating in a cooperative and supportive environment” that place “a high value on sustainability, the ecosystems that support life on earth and social responsibility.”

Kiki Tidwell is a leading clean tech angel investor who sits on the Northwest Energy Angels board of directors. Last July, she was admitted to the Kauffman Fellows Program, “a highly sought-after two-year program dedicated exclusively to the world of venture capital and the cultivation of new high-technology, high-growth, high-impact companies.”

Her background leaves little question as to why she’s sought out that clean tech sweet spot where making a profit meets making a difference.

“I was in computers back in 1982, teaching people how to use the first mini-computers,” she recalls. “I was right there during the start up of that industry and to me clean tech has the same vibe. We don’t know what will be the next Microsoft but there will be huge winners. On the philanthropy side, I’ve seen how renewable energy and our tremendous natural resources can have a major impact, especially in rural economic development. (Tidwell has lived in Idaho since 1981 and is the president of the Tidwell Idaho Foundation, as well as Idaho Land & Pine, Inc.)

“When I was serving on the board of the Idaho Community Foundation – the Governor’s Council on Families and Children – I saw these tiny farm communities struggling to meet their social service needs and keep their farms going year round, even when the cost of irrigation pumping runs into the millions. Approaches using geothermal, solar, wind and biomass resources are going to be critical to these farm communities.”

Tidwell says angels face a different investment proposition than VC investors. “I think one of the main differences is that because it’s our own money we [angels] are investing, we have the luxury as to invest in the one out of a hundred opportunities that looks good to us. And we don’t have to deploy capital in a ten-year timeframe. That said, the venture capitalist has resources devoted to understanding some of the issues, as well as more time to devote to helping companies post-investment.”

The point of her group, then, is to deal with some of these issues by promoting clean tech and educating angels around some of the science and business issues that are in play.

“By banding together, we can share a lot of information,” she says. “We have speakers who come in to address specific technologies. We have discussion groups between investors about issues in our portfolio companies. We have presenting companies giving us pitches once a month.”

A Leg Up

Whether it’s clean tech or double bottom line investing, VC or angel money, what was once a cutting edge approach to equity investment is now not only big business – it’s big politics and policy, too.

“It’s a very complex sector,” says Floyd. “There are so many considerations given the policy and regulatory overlay. Federally and globally there are a multitude of regulations to be aware of and, of course, there’s a whole world of incentives out there.”

Mastering these polices, regulations and incentives thus becomes a major value-add for groups like Nth Power and DBL. For green investors, working with the likes of Floyd, Pfund and Ringo is like having the combination of a good agent who knows the people you should know, and a good financial specialist who knows how to work every regulation and incentive detail to your monetary advantage.

DBL realized this early on during their first play. “It started with the first fund and actually morphed into a big idea,” says DBL’s Pfund. “We had to think of what’s in it for a company to site in a low-income neighborhood. And so we thought, well, when you go into these targeted economic zones like Richmond or parts of Oakland [California] you can get benefits in terms of tax treatment or low interest loans or even grants at times. We saw that worked very well, so we kind of layered on other ways to navigate that public/private sector interface to the benefit of both parties.”

This approach is particularly important in the green sector. “You are being watched by everyone from the local chapter of the Sierra Club to the mayor to the governor, and they can either help or hurt your business,” explains Pfund. “Reaching out and embracing that is part of what we advocate; we have been able to show how that’s beneficial and companies end up doing it themselves once they get off the ground.”

Shifting Winds

It’s no secret that this thriving arena has been the beneficiary of a type of affirmative action in recent years, with government playing a helpful role and, in some ways, simply getting out of the way. As the nation has warmed to the notion that Washington and State Capital USA do have roles to play in encouraging clean tech and environmental protection, the flames of this investment community are stoked.

Conversely, as seen during the ’80s, a lack of attention and accompanying incentives can allow those flames to all but die out. And it’s also no secret that there’s clearly a different political climate now than there was just two years ago when Barack Obama took office – and, incidentally, replaced the solar panels on the White House.

Yes, enter the Tea Party and science-deniers and the success of campaigns well-financed by a Supreme Court-loosed, corporate political-giving system that’s hostile to those potentially “disruptive” entrepreneurs that DBL’s Ringo speaks about. Add to that a growing public intolerance for government subsidies – at least for those that are on the agenda of media savvy interests – and, well, what’s a well-meaning, robust-but-still-requiring-incentives investment community to do?

“The pitch of the entire discussion [around green tech and the development of green-friendly business] has to change,” says Pfund. “We have to ask, what’s the subject matter that we’re speaking and thinking about when it comes to green investing? Certainly it’s very political and we get huge questions about the role of the Tea Party or the Republican Congress on a lot of the programs that are subsidizing clean tech. And those are good questions that are not easy to answer, so you have to develop a plan B. Clean tech is cleaner and getting cheaper, but it’s not as cheap as coal and natural gas. We just aren’t there yet, so that’s not the story.

“It gets back to this notion of connectedness,” she says. “I made a speech at Stanford [University] recently on large-scale solar in the deserts and [Secretary of State under Ronald Reagan] George Schultz was in the audience. He more or less said ‘I agree with you but you should ditch the environmental argument and just focus on energy security and our over-dependence on foreign oil.’ He’s not alone in saying that.

“Some Republicans, and some Democrats for that matter, hate the clean tech argument. They like the energy security argument, so he is saying face facts. The Republicans are a potent political force, so we need to speak their language. You do whatever you can to get it sold. And you don’t want to be pigeonholed into saying that this makes sense only from a global warming point of view and have people not want to talk to you. You don’t want to sabotage your argument by making it unnecessarily narrow.”

All told, it’s like any effective marketing strategy. You size up your audience and figure out what will be most appealing message. Says Tidwell, who is particularly interested in smart grid technology, about positioning: “This is not about tree hugging. This is about financial gain for investors, consumer benefit and energy security.”

The Color of Money

In the end, it might be counterintuitive to think mindsets that have been saddled with identifiers ranging from “progressive” (the most diplomatic) to “environmentalist wacko” (dismissive) could not only point to money-making propositions, but to the money making propositions that have the power to drive our economy and national security for decades to come.

Looking back, Ronald Reagan’s (and other “pro-business” leaders like him) commitment to existing enterprise at the expense of entrepreneurial activity was shortsighted on its surface. Forward-thinking government support, if not outright incentive is the cornerstone of what it means to be pro-business. 

For now, the Floyds, Pfunds, Ringos and Tidwells of the world go to sleep dreaming about two kinds of green.

“What I wake up thinking about is what any entrepreneur thinks about,” says Floyd. “The challenges faced by individual young companies.”

Image: quinn.anya

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